Richard Bates Jr. has one of the most unique and twisted visions in all of indie horror—you know when you’re watching an RBJ film (and that says a lot), as he first hit the genre running with the wholly original shocker Excision and following it up with his dark comedy in the supernatural haunter Suburban Gothic. So far none of his films have been alike, and while Trash Fire is his most accessible feature to date, it’s easily his best. In it, when Owen is forced to confront the past he’s been running from his whole adult life, he and his girlfriend, Isabel, become entangled in a horrifying web of lies, deceit and murder.
This is my kind of movie—it blazes its own path through the genre, not following any set of rules or tropes, as RBJ spins his wicked tale of loss and forgiveness through a vulgar lens that blends black comedy into straight-up horror. But it burns slowly through that transition from comedy to horror, so much so that the horror of the narrative stays dormant for half the movie. And that’s what I really enjoyed about this film—the way RBJ spends the first half of the story with his characters, Owen and Isabel, under a microscope was a welcome surprise; we get to learn so much about about them, especially Owen, who’s a total piece of shit and the furthest thing away from a traditional protagonist.
Being immediately disconnected from the main character of a movie was no doubt a bold move, but it adds such a unique wrinkle to the narrative that it’s hard not to buy into it—Owen is a self-absorbed asshole that only cares about himself, and some of the shit he says makes him downright hatable. His girlfriend Isabel, however, is on the opposite side of the spectrum, which helped balance the scales because one of them is easy to hate while the other is easy to like—it also made their overall character arcs that much more powerful. Like I said, starting a movie out with a main character that you’re suppose to hate is a daring choice, but Trash Fire keeps you hooked despite that thanks to its very dry (and dark) humor. And the best part is that the humor is just a mask for the real horror of the film, which is just rattling underneath, waiting to surface.
It isn’t until we find out about Owen’s horrifying past that the film really starts to go to work, as it reveals the twisted layers of the story. It certainly catches you off guard, too, going from this black comedy to something so menacing and creepy—the film is very deceptive in that regard and it’s better off because of it. Trash Fire feels like RBJ took the best elements of his previous two films and injected them into this one, resulting in an often brilliant micro-thriller that gets more and more wicked with each passing frame. And it’s that constant pressure being built throughout the second half of the film that creates a wonderful atmosphere of tension—the story and the characters within in it slowly become unhinged, going down this dark path that you know is going to end in mayhem.
That all said, my favorite thing about Trash Fire is that it uses its easy-to-hate protagonist to its advantage, because as soon as Owen becomes tolerable, the film pulls the proverbial rug out from under you and takes a nasty turn. Putting so much into these characters, especially early on, was the driving force behind the horror and it totally pays off in the final act. I really enjoyed this twisted little film—the way it blurs the genre lines by taking a familiar concept and making it its own was a welcome surprise in a totally off-the-wall, batshit kind of way.